Paul Mitchell was born in York, Neb., a full-blood Lakota of the Sicangu Nation. The French referred to his people as the Brulé, or the Burnt Thighs. In the 1960s, Paul was adopted by Harold and Diane Mitchell.
Decades later, Paul would minister as a youth pastor to some of the richest neighborhoods in New York City, in the Hamptons on Shelter Island.
“Then I moved back west,” Paul said, laughing softly. “I just wasn’t made for the ocean.”
Harold and Diane now reside in Wayne County, where Paul’s father preaches at Sunnyslope Church of Christ near Promise City, on the northern route of the Mormon Trail. Bison roam along Iowa Highway S56 inside a fenced-in pasture.
The Mitchells live in Paul’s grandparents’—Howard and Pauline Vincent’s—house on a Century Farm.
They moved back to Diane’s homeland in the mid-1990s. Before that, they lived in Manhattan, Kan., where Paul graduated from high school.
“I have a deep love and respect for the families and farmers there,” Paul said of Wayne County. “My heart will always be tied into that community, the vitality and simplicity of their commitment.”
Paul now lives in Valentine, Neb., where former Wayne County columnist Nancy Hamar graduated from high school. Valentine is still a ranching community filled by the sound of cattle lowing at livestock auctions.
“On any given day, the town is filled with trucks and livestock trailers,” Paul said. “The only thing you can hear is cattle moving, and the restaurants are filled with cowboys. I enjoy that aspect of it. They come to town, and everything comes alive, the stores perk up. It’s beautiful country.”
His wife is a schoolteacher in Todd County, one of the poorest in the United States. It is part of the Rosebud Indian Reservation.
Paul’s testimony includes his struggle with alcoholism, and more than one attempt at suicide.
That was a darker time in his life that cost him his wife and their three children, when they were living in Hannibal, Mo., but without this struggle, he would not be who he is today.
Three years ago, Paul attended a pastor’s conference in Montana.
“I went in as a young, native pastor just getting started in the ministry,” Paul said. “A non-native pastor came to me.
“He said, ‘I’ve put in five years feeding the homeless in New York City. I’ve done food and medical relief down in places devastated by the hurricanes. I’ve been to third-world countries in South America and Africa, building churches and schools and helping the people understand their relationship with God. I’ve got two master’s degrees, I’m working on my doctorate, and I’ve decided to go up to Alaska and start a church up there.’
“He looked at me, and he said, ‘What do you bring to the table as far as ministry and working with Native America?’
“I stood there amongst all those 250 pastors, and said, ‘Well, I was a very successful alcoholic. I drank to the point I wanted nothing to do with my children or my wife. I got divorced. I had suicidal tendencies. When I was 19, I put a gun to my chest, pulled the trigger and blew a hole through my body. I spent well over a year-and-a-half in psychiatric wards trying to figure out why I could not overcome depression. I’ve been homeless. I’ve had nothing. I’ve slept in my car many times because I couldn’t pay rent. I’ve been broken.’
“And this pastor began to look around the auditorium, and he got that far-off look like, ‘What am I doing talking to this guy? I need to get out of here.’
“And I grabbed him by the shoulders, and I said, ‘But the same God that picked you up and polished you up is the same God that polished me off—it’s time to go to work.’
“Everything that has happened in my life that has primarily been a failure—suicidal tendencies, alcoholism, homelessness, divorce, brokenness of life—these things God has used on the Reservation. I have an education no one would pay a dime for, but everyone goes to school to spend tons of money to talk about.”
Paul already had the weapon in his hands. He had come in on a Thursday morning around 7:30 to speak with his psychiatrist. The night before, he had taken the gun from a friend.
“As I sat there, the psychiatrist said, ‘I’ve only got 30 minutes. If you need anything, I’ll make another appointment. Do you want some apple juice?’
“When he came back, I had the gun sitting on my lap. Within a few moments, the entire building was vacated. We were surrounded by a swat team and detectives. For four hours, he tried to convince me to set the gun down and walk away from it. I wouldn’t.
“The amazing thing I have to share about all of this, in the end, when I went downstairs to go to the bathroom and I closed the door, I found myself in a super-chaotic, crazy moment. I took the gun, put it to my chest and pulled the trigger.
“After I got to the hospital, went through surgery, and they repaired my lung and that central part of your system where everything comes together, my folks, the entire time, were at the church praying. They never left the church. It was a powerful example of their commitment to God.
“When I was in recovery, they came to me.”
In September of 2005, he graduated from the Heartland Recovery Program for alcoholism.
“They had one of the largest dairy farms in the Midwest,” Paul said. “About 600 head. They had just started a cheese plant. I was the first cheesemaker they invested in—they sent me to school in Burlington, Vermont.”
From there, Paul became a licensed master cheesemaker, taking additional schooling at the University of Wisconsin in Madison.
“I went on to produce five number-one cheeses in America for this creamery. It was a wonderful experience, and I really felt like that was something I was going to do for the rest of my life. I liked the creative element.
“You pour all of your experience and wisdom into five hours of cheesemaking, and then you’ve got to be patient for six to eight weeks before you know if you hit the mark. The acid development—is there enough salt, is the moisture correct to allow the salt to migrate in, what flavor profiles do you produce with the cultures and enzymes?
“That just excited me. It was a test of patience, a test of character to see it through. We threw away and fed 100,000 pounds of cheese to the hogs before I started producing something that was going to be saleable and edible. That’s 1.8 million gallons of milk. That’s an enormous investment most companies cannot do, but we started bringing home first in the nation through the American Cheese Society.”
As Paul’s skill increased, he continued working with alcoholics moving through the same program that saved him from the disease.
“Whether you’re in the Hamptons or the fourth-poorest county in the United States, it comes down to the understanding that without forgiveness, love doesn’t mean anything. They need each other. Cheesemaking taught me a lot about patience.”
“In 2009, I felt like the Lord put in my heart to go to my people,” Paul said. “I waited two years, prayed about it, continued working, and in 2011 I started making journeys to South Dakota to the Rosebud Reservation. I spent about a year-and-a-half working in Rapid City with inner-city Natives.”
Rosebud is just east of the Pine Ridge Reservation and Wounded Knee, where on Dec. 29, 1890, American soldiers massacred an estimated 300 Lakota men, women and children and buried them in a mass grave. It was the time of the Ghost Dance, when the prophet Wovoka had a vision of Christ returning to Earth in the form of a Native American. The white invaders would disappear, and the bison would come back.
Some of this testimony can be found in Black Elk Speaks, the tale of the Lakota holy man:
“When I look back now from this high hill of my old age, I can still see the butchered women and children lying heaped and scattered all along the crooked gulch as plain as when I saw them with eyes young. And I can see that something else died there in the bloody mud, and was buried in the blizzard. A people’s dream died there. It was a beautiful dream… the nation’s hoop is broken and scattered. There is no center any longer, and the sacred tree is dead.”
Some white men such as L. Frank Baum, a newspaper editor at the time and future author of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, painted a rosier portrait of the deed:
“The Pioneer has before declared that our only safety depends upon the total extermination of the Indians. Having wronged them for centuries, we had better, in order to protect our civilization, follow it up by one more wrong and wipe these untamed and untamable creatures from the face of the earth. In this lies future safety for our settlers and the soldiers who are under incompetent commands. Otherwise, we may expect future years to be as full of trouble with the redskins as those have been in the past.”
The government had quelled what they called ‘the Messiah craze.’ The soldiers were awarded over 20 Medals of Honor for Wounded Knee, while the Lakota cycled into poverty and addiction, strangers in their own country.
Less than 120 years later, it is difficult for the Native people to forgive. A vast crevasse separates one of the poorest counties in the United States from the affluence of Shelter Island, but the problem runs deeper than economic differences.
“We planted our little church in the middle of the Rosebud Reservation in January of 2015, and it has grown immensely,” Paul said. “We feel we’re on the right path.
“The unemployment rate is roughly 65 to 70 percent. Addiction levels are roughly 75 percent—almost in every home, there’s some level of addiction, between drug and alcohol abuse. One in three women on the Reservation has a probability of being molested or raped. The violence here is aggressive and rampant. The past seven weeks, we’ve had three teenagers commit suicide.”
A large part of Paul’s duties involves working with families ravaged by economic woe, addiction and abuse.
“Much of the strength my wife and I bring is my history with addictions, and the issues I faced growing up. It’s traumatic. It’s not your normal platform for building a successful church.
“If you look at history, churches are not well accepted on the Reservation. In the past, with boarding schools and the way that religion has been pressed into a lot of the Native Americans, it’s considered a white man’s religion.
“I work a lot with the local people who are traditional, and I encourage them. I feel a part of our ministry is we let them see our relationship with the Lord in action, rather than just talking about it. We don’t bring a conflict of statements and words—‘they’re wrong, and we’re right’—no, we just come there to love and care about them.
“Traditional religion believes in a Heavenly Father, but seeks to appease the ancestors and to appease God. And so, there’s a gratification that’s met here—instead of living at peace with others and seeking and finding that peace from God through Jesus—that’s the definitive statement between traditional religion and a faithful and humble relationship with the Lord. It’s a challenge, for sure, there’s no question.
“Our mission statement for our little church is loving people into the Truth of the Cross. I want our people that come to church to learn. We’re 95 percent Native American.
“Our primary goal is a ministry of reconciliation, first and foremost to Jesus. A definition of affective love is to learn how to forgive.
“One of the great illusions here on this Reservation that breaks families and relationships is an inability to forgive. When we come up against an issue where maybe a traditional man or woman comes to our church—a Medicine Man will come to our services from time-to-time—they try to show the conflict between our belief systems.
“They ask us, ‘What do you believe in?’
“I just tell them every time, ‘My goal is to help you to get to a higher relationship with the Lord. That’s it. The only way I know how to do that is to love and care about you, and encourage you in that relationship.’
“If you get pointed towards the Father—God—then He’s going to speak clearly into your life about the things that need to be changed. It doesn’t become an issue of me saying what’s right and wrong. On the Reservation, because of such poverty—the lack of housing, a car to get around, food at the end of the month—we find they want a God that answers that alone. They don’t want to change their lives, their addictions, or their behavior.
“We talk about a God that wants to change them first and foremost inwardly, in the heart, and then the expectations will come that life is going to evolve. It grows. Life is growth; it’s change. Life is ever-evolving and changing.
“Instead, they want a God that’s tangible—that says I’m going to put 500 dollars in your account, I’m going to fix your car—instead of learning to persevere, to deal with your life circumstances.”
In some ways, the plague on the Reservation is a plague brought by the materialism of the West, as dangerous as small pox. Once, the psychology of adapting to circumstances was considered more important than circumstances themselves. Paul’s mission of reconciliation is also one of remembrance. Therefore, the Lakota do not need to forget or revise what happened at Wounded Knee.
“The main thing is the heart,” Paul said. “I don’t change that. They’re used to making the pastors almost a god. I think that’s one of the great struggles on the Reservation. Now, if you’re not rooted in humility, some of that stuff can get to your heart and to your mind, and you begin to think that way as a pastor.”
It can lead to a cult mentality. Black Elk died in 1950, taking with him the memory of Wounded Knee. A few years later, the infamous Jim Jones, in the beginning a beneficent preacher in 1950s Indiana, became a monster who created an atmosphere that allowed for the massacre of almost 1,000 of his followers in South America. It was a kind of self-inflicted Wounded Knee.
Paul is wise to the world of suffering and desire, of rich and poor, and after a self-inflicted gunshot wound, it could be said he was literally born again.
“Every Sunday, I say, ‘If you’re coming to church simply because you’re beginning to look at me to make your life like mine, then you’re here for the wrong purpose.’ My job is to get you into a personal relationship with God. Your life and challenges are going to look different than mine—the things you face, the decisions you must make.
“What it comes down to is to walk beside people, to walk beside Native America, to let them see God. There’s only one Teacher, and He’s personal. We’ve got to behave differently. We’ve got to get out of the way.
“Christ, God and the Holy Spirit, they’re all about the heart. They’re not about the aspects of life we often put all our faith into. We try to get people to understand the fruit of not forgiving. What do you produce when you can’t let go?”
Paul touts the benefits of multiculturalism, but not as a one-way road. It is, instead, a path to proper psychology and spirituality.
“God just sent in a pastor to our church. He’s non-native. I think it’s a powerful thing when you bring cross-cultural into a church body, and you allow Native America to see non-native and native working together for the one thing. It’s not [the color] of flesh, it’s not about the past, it’s about the heart. It’s broken. That has to be the focus.
“If we become a body of believers that simply says you’ve got to come to church, tithe your 10 percent, committed to this family and that’s it, then we’ve made God an idol—somebody you pull down off the shelf on Sunday mornings and Wednesday evenings, and that’s just not the Truth. People need to know He’s alive and He’s well.
“What I can say about not forgiving the past—even if you were to have the president of the United States come to the Reservation, get down on his knees and apologize for the atrocities of history, it still wouldn’t heal anything. We’re bitter. And bitterness keeps growth from happening. Just like when you get caught up in addiction, you stop maturing.
“My time as a youth pastor in the Hamptons for a year was a great opportunity for me to see what believers look like when all their practical needs are answered. They’re living in million-dollar houses. They all have boats and multiple vehicles. But they wanted to do right; they wanted to be right.
“When I come here to the Reservation, I work in the fourth poorest county in the United States. Now, we’re working with people that have allowed all the things they lack to become the excuse.
“In the end, none of it has anything to do with your relationship with God—whether you have much, little or nothing. When you have much, you have hurdles. And when you have little, you have ditches. Either way, if you allow these things to become an excuse, they’re going to become footholds.”